Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 3)

1961
Veronica Ogelvy. I had a burning necessity to impress Veronica. She was the best looking girl in the class -- personal opinion -- even better looking than Marilyn Monroe. Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch. But Veronica was there; Marilyn was not and never would be. Tommy was not so impressed. He said Veronica was just another pretty face with no brains. But I was not to be deterred. I was strictly “Full speed ahead.” So Tommy went along for the ride.
We began by writing poems; love poems. But somehow poetry that starts out “Roses are red. . .” just didn’t have the same ring to it as “Romeo, Romeo. . .” so we began to experiment on other forms. Limericks were another form we knew about, but that would never do. The only limericks we knew started out talking about a hermit named Dave, and even though we weren’t quite sure what the rest of the poem was about, we were quite certain that they weren’t very romantic.
“Do ya think she might go out with me if I ask her nice?” I was looking off dreamily into space. “We could go to one of those girly movies. You know; with lots ‘o kissin’ and stuff. Really get her in the mood. I don’t see how she could help but like me.”
“You’ve gotta be kiddin, man. She’d never go out with you. She’s too uppity for that. She’d rather go out with someone named Reginald, or maybe Cyril. With a name like George, she’d never give you the time of day.” I had almost forgotten my real name. It didn’t look good enough in print.


“So, maybe I’ll change my name. How about Roy, or maybe Dirk? I’ll bet she’d go for a name like Dirk, don’t you?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Maybe. But you’ll have to do something about that last name too. Wilson just doesn’t sound romantic enough.” Tommy began to dream a bit himself.
“Hey! How ‘bout ‘Robert Young?”
“Naw. That’d never work. You don’t look nothin’ like a Robert even if y’are young.” He had that gleam in his eye that said, “I just made a joke.” I ignored it.
“I’ve got the perfect name,” I said. “Errol Flynn. It’s got pizzazz. Like a movie hero.”
“Well ‘course, ya jerk. He is a movie hero. Haven’t you ever seen Robin Hood?”
”Yeah! I know. But it has such a good sound to it. I’ll bet she’d really go for a guy named Errol Flynn.”
We sat for a long time without saying a word. Finally Tommy broke the silence. “Why don’t you use a little alliteration? You know, like they use in poems sometimes.”
“Yeah! Like I heard about Edgar Allen Poe. The teacher told us he used to use a lot of L’s in names. Like Ullalume for instance.”
“Well, there’s always Larry, or maybe Lochinvar.”
“Man! You do come up with some weirdies. Whoever heard of a newspaper man named Lochinvar?” I paused again in deep thought. “But then there’s always Lance. That’s a good name. Sounds like a regular guy. What goes with Lance?”


“Well, there’s always Logan. We used to know a family named Logan. Naw! You don’t want that name. Too much like Logansport. Like you were named after a small town. How ‘bout Latimer?”
I thought for another minute. “Hey, Tommy! That’s a good one. Lance Latimer, reporter at large. That reminds me. We’ve got another assignment for journalism class. Any ideas what to write about?”
“Why don’t we write another one of those disaster stories?” he suggested. “Then you can show Veronica just how brave you are, coming in to save everybody.”
“I don’t know, Tommy. We may just gross her out.”
“Yeah, but we could really make it juicy. Remember that idea we had about a plane crash? Maybe we could have it crash on the highway; really make a mess out of things.”
*
2001
“PLANE CRASHES ON INTERSTATE,” the headline read. “Smokey Mountain Airlines jumbo jet flight 1408 experienced engine trouble on its way to Nashville. The pilot attempted to land the jumbo jet on nearby Interstate 40. The plane skidded into a tanker truck loaded with ten thousand gallons of gasoline. The resulting fire destroyed the truck, the plane, and three quarters of a mile of the highway. Traffic is currently being re-routed to U.S. 70 several miles to the south while temporary repairs are being completed.”


The words jumped off the page. I didn’t want to read the rest of the story. I already knew it from memory. It was my story. But I had to confirm what I already knew I would find. That sick feeling had returned.
I dropped the newspaper on the floor and ran to the phone. Jake answered. “Loganville Herald. Jake speaking. May I help you?”
“Jake. This is Lance.”
“Hey, Lance. I see you recovered from your little bender last night.”
“Never mind that. Did I give you a story last night?”
“You know you did, Lance. It’s right here on the front page. It says . . .”
“Never mind what it says. Do you have the manuscript there?”
“Yes. Why?”
I knew the answer before I asked the question, but I had to be sure. “Is it written with that same typewriter?”
“Well, yes, it looked the same to me. But what’s that got to do with . . .?”
“Never mind. Did that same copy boy bring it around last night, say about eleven thirty like yesterday?”


“You know he did. You sent it.” There was a pause. Then Jake said, “Don’t tell me you wrote this one forty years ago. Listen, Lance. I checked this one out myself. I went out there and saw the mess in person. Your description was right on the money. This couldn’t have been written anytime before last night. It’s just too accurate. Lance? Hey, Lance. Are you alright?”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.” I dropped the phone on the hook.
*
The trip to the office seemed to take hours. In reality it was about five minutes. All the way, my thoughts kept running back to that day when Tommy and I wrote that “on-the-scene” report. Every detail of the crash came back to me.
“Witnesses on the scene described the horrendous noise of the truck exploding. ‘It sounded like a tremendous clap of thunder,’ they said, ‘only it never seemed to stop.’ Fire engulfed the truck and the airplane almost immediately. The blood curdling screams of the passengers could be heard from well outside the danger zone. One witness was so near the scene that the heat caught his clothing on fire. His hair and clothing had been burned completely off. He received first and second degree burns over most of his body. He was taken to the hospital where he was listed in critical condition. Police reported that, in addition to the truck and the plane, three other vehicles were destroyed. No one else was reported to have escaped from the inferno.”
These words, long forgotten, came rushing back to me like the hot blast from a steel furnace.
“Where’s that manuscript?” I demanded as I ran to Jake’s desk.


“It’s probably still in the composing room,” answered Jake. He had that look in his eye as if to say, “Where did you think it would be, dummy?” I ignored the look, and headed directly for the composing room. Sam Willoughby sat there, waiting for me, primed and ready for whatever I was about to say. He spoke first.
“Before you get all overheated, Lance, I wasn’t here when the story came in. You’ll have to talk to . . .”
“I don’t care about that, Sam. I just want to see the manuscript.”
“Okay, Lance, but I don’t see what you . . .”
“Just give me the script, Sam. I don’t need a lecture.”
“Sheesh! You reporters are all alike. You’re such a bunch of prima donnas. Think no one can read what you wrote.”
I ignored the rest of the lecture and inspected the paper. I was afraid I would find it, and I did. To lend realism to the story, Tommy and I had charred the edges of the paper slightly with a match. The charring was there alright. Right along the top edges of the paper. I began to feel faint, and I sat down in the nearest chair.
“Hey Lance! You all right? Don’t take it so hard. I was just kidding.”
“That’s alright, Sam. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s just . . . well, I can’t explain it exactly. It’s just such a shock to see this in print.”
“Gee, Lance. I’d have thought you’d seen that kind of story in print hundreds of times by now. What’s so different about this one?”
One of the copyboys had brought me a drink of water. I started to take a swallow and thought better of it. “How about a little brandy instead?”


“Sorry, Lance,” answered Sam. “I can’t allow that stuff in here. You’re on your own there.” My bewildered look must have caught his attention. “Look, Lance. Is there anything I can do to help? If not, you’re gonna have to leave. You’re upsetting the staff, and they’ve got work to do.”
“Huh? Oh. Sorry, Sam. No, there’s nothing you can do. I’ll be going now. I’ve got things to do myself.”
What was I to do? I needed desperately to talk to someone, anyone, who would not pass judgment on me. Sam was busy with other matters. He would never understand, anyway. Sam was a pragmatist. If you couldn’t show him something in black and white, he would never believe it. Jake was a little better, but he already thought I was crazy. There was certainly no one here at the paper who would listen without criticizing. The only person I could think of was Ruby, the bartender. You could always cry on her shoulder and she would keep a confidence better than any doctor. Ruby considered that she had a sort of privileged relationship with her customers. She never had a personal relationship with any of them. That was left to other women. Besides, she had a happy home life; a husband, a son, and three daughters. She was always a good listener, but she never carried tales or passed on gossip. A truly magnificent woman. Perhaps, if I had found someone like her, I wouldn’t have ended up an alcoholic. Did I say that? Did I finally admit the truth that I had avoided for so many years?
Ruby was in a rare good mood. You could rarely read her mood, but today she was very happy about something. I decided not to ask what it was. It was none of my business really. Besides, I had other things on my mind. It was rather selfish, now that I look back on it, but Ruby was not one to share that sort of thing with anyone.


“What can I get you?” she said with a smile. Then she looked at my face and stopped. “Looks to me as though you need something besides a drink. How about a cup of coffee instead?”
“Sounds good,” I answered.
She returned shortly with the steaming cup of relief. “Now, what’s on your mind Lance? You look troubled.”
“You read me perfectly, Ruby. How do you do that, anyway?”
“It’s a gift,” she answered. “I like people. They’re my hobby. With a job like this, they’re my vocation too. Right now you look like a man who’s just lost his best friend.”
“Actually it’s much worse than that,” I answered. “I may have been responsible for the death of a whole lot of people.” I went on to explain.
Half way through the explanation, Jim Trumble called from the other end of the bar. “Hey, Ruby. How ‘bout a little service down here?”
Ruby looked in Jim’s direction. “Keep your shirt on, Jimbo. Can’t you see I’m givin’ a little advice down here?” She turned back to me. “Now, go ahead, Lance. Finish your story.”
After I had finished, Ruby took a long hard look at me. “So, what do you intend to do about this? Do you think you ought to see a shrink or something?”


“No, I don’t think so. He’d just give me some sort of medicine to get rid of my psychosis or something. It’s not like I’m hearing voices or anything like that. It’s just that these old manuscripts of mine keep showing up at the strangest times. It’s almost like I was able to predict the future back there in high school. It’s got me scared. I’m afraid I may be causing someone’s death because of this . . . fiction that I wrote forty years ago.”
Ruby looked me squarely in the eye. “If you think these stories are coming true, what’s next? What story did you write next?”
I hadn’t thought about it. “I wrote about a bad fire. An apartment fire.”
“Where did this happen?”
“I’m trying to remember. It’s been so long ago I don’t remember where it was supposed to happen.”
“Do you have any idea where these manuscripts are coming from? When did you last see them?”
“I don’t remember for certain. I think I put ‘em in Mom’s attic somewhere. But that’s been at least thirty eight years ago, when I graduated from high school.”
“Does your Mom tend to keep stuff like that?”
“Some stuff, I guess. But these were kind of gross. Maybe she just threw them away. Anyway, she moved to a smaller house a few years back. She couldn’t take care of the big place anymore, and with my Father gone . . . Well, there were just too many memories in the old place.”
“So, give your Mother a call tonight. Maybe she remembers where those other manuscripts are. Okay?”


“Yeah, I guess so. It’s kind of late to be calling her tonight, though. She goes to bed rather early.”
“Maybe you’ll feel better about the whole thing in the morning. A new day, a better outlook on life. You know, all the usual clich├ęs.”
“Maybe you’re right. This could be just a fantastic coincidence.”
I said it, but I didn’t really believe it. For one thing, the descriptions were too accurate to have been coincidence. For another, where did these manuscripts come from after forty years?
I did not sleep well at all that night. I hadn’t had anything alcoholic to drink for over twenty four hours. Surprisingly, that hadn’t hit me yet. I can only guess that the tension of the past two days had somehow canceled the effects of the DT’s, at least for the moment. Twice I was awakened by the sound of fire trucks, or I thought I was. When I woke up, I no longer heard them, so I laid back down and tried to sleep. By the third time, I was already fully awake. There was no doubt about it this time. With that sick feeling in my gut, I dressed as quickly as I could. It was now Tuesday October 17.
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